The Fresno City Council on Thursday night approved more staff to muscle up a code enforcement unit dedicated to attacking substandard housing. But more than a dozen critics commented that the resolution does not go far enough by continuing to depend on tenant complaints.
The resolution, authored by Councilmen Clint Olivier and Steve Brandau, was approved by a 5-2 vote. It is their solution to a problem Mayor Ashley Swearengin has vowed to fix before she leaves office at year’s end. It consists of two initiatives: an Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team, or ASET, and a landlord-tenant ombudsman.
ASET builds upon the Strike Team on Problem Properties, or STOPP team, established early this year by City Manager Bruce Rudd. STOPP includes 11 staff, but most juggle other duties. All 14 ASET personnel, including six code enforcement inspectors and three attorneys, will be dedicated full time to substandard housing cases.
Councilmen Oliver Baines and Sal Quintero voted against the proposal.
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The Bee highlighted Fresno’s problems of substandard housing earlier this year in a series called “Living in Misery.” It found that units all over the city are unlivable while landlords go without penalty due to the city’s lack of oversight.
Brandau and Olivier revised their idea after meeting this week with Rudd and Swearengin. The city manager and mayor initially opposed the resolution, saying it should not take the place of a routine interior inspection plan and that it replicated many measures already in place.
“Council Members Brandau, Olivier and I have been working for the last week to find common ground,” Swearengin said Thursday evening. “From the beginning, we were in agreement that more needs to be done to address substandard housing in our city. The problems are too great for too many to not continue to use every tool necessary to reverse the condition of substandard housing in Fresno.”
She still intends to bring a comprehensive plan forward within the next month.
We want this dedicated unit because we want to create a deterrent effect for the bad actors who are taking advantage of our city.
Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau
Brandau said his and Olivier’s proposal will focus solely on health and safety problems in rental housing. “We want this dedicated unit because we want to create a deterrent effect for the bad (landlord) actors who are taking advantage of our city,” he said.
The plan will work like this: Problem properties are identified through the previous STOPP team’s formula combining the highest number of code complaints, fire and police calls; traditional code enforcement calls and complaints; or complaints filed with the ombudsman. The ombudsman reviews complaints and tells the landlord to fix the violations.
If a landlord fails to address the issues, the complaint is transferred to the enforcement team manager, who can take action through civil litigation and, if necessary, criminal prosecution. If significant violations are found at a property, the team will inspect other properties held by the same owner.
The ombudsman is meant to be an impartial liaison and support both tenants and landlords. Landlords will be required to provide written materials to tenants explaining the enforcement team and ombudsman. The materials will be translated to Spanish, Hmong and Lao.
Olivier tried unsuccessfully to sway Baines and Quintero to support the program. “Every day we don’t do something is another day someone is living in substandard housing,” he said.
Baines acknowledged that the city needs to do something sooner rather than later. But he called for wholesale change to code enforcement. He said he has participated in talks about reforming code for the six years he has been on the council and yet code officers still don’t return calls from his staff.
“Several times along the way we do efforts like this,” he said. “We do Band-Aids. We just move the needle a little bit … when quite honestly code doesn’t function like it should in our city, and we know that. And it hasn’t for a long time.”
Councilman Paul Caprioglio asked his colleagues to remove the ombudsman position because he thinks it adds an unnecessary level of bureaucracy. Olivier said that’s not true. “It’s actually not another layer of bureaucracy,” he said. “It’s going to be more efficient now.”
Under the original proposal, only a certain percentage of units would have initially been inspected. If significant violations were found, all units in the complex would be inspected. The original proposal also would have held tenants and occupants liable for damage.
The revised version uses existing code enforcement managers, costs less and includes initial inspection of all units in a targeted complex. It does not include language holding occupants liable.
“Once we know there’s a bad property, we can go in and inspect every single unit, no holds barred,” Brandau said Thursday. “We can gain access to every single unit if the ASET supervisor believes that’s what we need to do.”
ASET pulls six staff from STOPP but adds a supervisor, three code enforcement officers, one city attorney and the ombudsman. Those positions will cost a combined $553,000 annually. Some of the costs will be recovered through fines.
The team will also undergo enhanced training through the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training and the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers. The team will submit quarterly reports to the City Council and reports on the worst violators will be posted to the city attorney’s website.
The resolution doesn’t change the fact that Fresno’s code enforcement system overwhelmingly relies on tenants to complain about their living conditions. Housing advocates have long said that system fails to address the problem because many tenants who fear landlord retaliation don’t report their conditions.
Olivier and Brandau have vocally opposed Swearengin’s attempt to develop a program to routinely inspect the interiors of rental units in Fresno. The code enforcement task force she assembled a year ago to help craft the policy wrangled without success over cost and procedures.
More than a dozen people commented in opposition of the resolution, including tenants, Fresno State students, attorneys who represent tenants and tenant advocates. A couple, including a representative of the California Apartment Association, commented in favor.
Local attorney Patience Milrod sent council members a letter on Monday stating the resolution makes enforcement dependent on tenants and complicates enforcement by requiring that the person complaining to the ombudsman must also have signed the lease.
Fresno State sociology professor Matthew Jendian, who is co-chair of the task force, asked the council to table the resolution until the mayor releases her proposal. He said Olivier and Brand “seem to be sidestepping the entire public process.”
“How many property owners were invited to provide input, and how many tenants?” he asked.